Memoir Reveals the Man Who Would Be VP

Posted September 15, 2008 at 4:36pm

Watching Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), few would believe he had a debilitating stutter as a child. He speaks so clearly now, even when he makes one of his trademark political gaffes. In his recently re-released memoir, “Promises to Keep,” Biden writes about his passionate desire to beat the stutter. That same drive to correct his speech comes across again and again in his book, revealing a person whose strength lies more in resilience than in natural talent.

First published during the race for the Democratic nomination, “Promises” has been re-issued since Biden was named Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) vice presidential nominee. Like most books by aspiring presidents, Biden’s has its share of empty statements (“There were things I believed I could do for the country — things I felt prepared to do for the country — and for the first time in my career I wasn’t sure I could do them as a United States senator”). But it also reveals a statesman driven by two lifelong dreams: to do good and to achieve a life of upper-middle-class wealth.

Born into a large, working-class family, Biden spent much of his childhood in Scranton, Pa., and Wilmington, Del. Biden worked doggedly to beat his stutter, and his pain when fellow students and teachers made fun of his speech comes across heartbreakingly well. So does a profound desire to speak normally. He writes, “So I’d stay in front of my mirror at night, studying my face as I talked …”

All the goals Biden writes about are uphill battles, whether it is his desire to go to a posh private high school that his family couldn’t afford or to marry the daughter of a wealthy Republican who didn’t want his daughter to marry a Catholic. Biden is also a long-term planner, picking out houses where he would raise a large family, figuring that his best route into politics would be by becoming a lawyer, saving up money and starting his own law firm.

There’s a sensitive tone to the book, which serves as an admission that Biden realizes his imperfections. During his first presidential run, reporters discovered that he had incorrectly cited sources in a legal methods class in law school, which was described as plagiarism. Whether it was or not, Biden withdrew his candidacy and blamed himself for the 20-year-old mistake. “When I stopped trying to explain to everybody and thought it through, the blame fell totally on me,” he writes.

His greatest moments were not on the campaign trail. In fact, Biden’s biggest achievements came after his failed presidential run. For instance, he writes about his role during the war in the Balkans in advising President Bill Clinton to keep “the pressure on [Slobadan] Milosevic” and in his working to pass the Violence Against Women Act.

Many a politician would probably rather be known for a swift and smooth ascension to the presidency than a resilience to keep going after making mistakes. For Biden, though, his skills lie more in the latter than in the former.